I realised that it’s mental health awareness week and it’s always heartening and heart-breaking to hear how people are affected. But, mental health isn’t just about those long-term mental health challenges that so many (incredible) people face. We’re all susceptible to suffering from mental illness and there’s always a new way to improve our mental health. It’s about all of us and we could all do with looking after our noggin’s a little more.
Being disabled, ill or even just different to the people around you has a profound impact on how you feel about yourself and how that shows in your conscious thoughts, your confidence and motivation levels and your mood. Sometimes, that divide is neon-signed, and if you haven’t got the ability to stick up your shield, it hurts. It hurts very deep inside and can flatten you with one single hit.
I’ve been through abject torture emotionally, physically and mentally. I’ve been at the point of collapse, past it and sometimes, it was only faith and a promise to a friend to never give up that forced me on.
But that taught me more about myself and who I was than anything else. I developed a whole host of ways to fight back when the uncontrollable stuff threatened to floor me; I found new levels of determination, of persistence, belief, I grew up in a low of ways, and somehow seemed to start finding smiles in the small things. Before I didn’t know what it was to look at someone else who was disabled, in any sense, and see strength. It takes sheer guts to fight back, something no world champion, no top star, no celebrated genius can match. Not just Paralympians, but the everyday people you see around you, are turning disability into possibility.
But, as I’m talking about the mental side of things and I wanted to be useful because I like being useful, and go through the mental techniques I’ve learned from sport, sports’ psychology, and faith.
The external shots:
I can’t control what other people do but I can control how it affects me – Take this lovely poster for example. For anyone outside the NHS, this sums up where disabled people sit in the eyes of medical staff, and bosses: we’re a burden, we’re an annoyance and we need to be thankful for the crumbs we’re given. It’s the “take it and shut up,” culture that unfortunately seems rife in my experience and many others. It’s not good enough and I can rightly want to throw my diamond earring foot plate at someone. I can complain but you can imagine how that often goes when the people who create these posters are the ones you complain to.
People may choose convenience over consideration, but I don’t have to be the same.
Yup, this is a private hospital. A very well known one. This is my every day… and yeah, I went in and told the staff who revealed it had been there a while. No one thought it might be sensible, in a hospital, to keep the disabled bay clear but… nope.
Ignorance may be bliss to some people, but it’s a pain in the butt for everyone else.
For instance, Ferb does a unique job. I have some challenges that he is uniquely trained to help me with. He is not a robot with fur. One of Ferb’s particular jobs is knowing what I need, when I need it and telling me to do it. You can imagine hard we both train for that. You can probably imagine how daunting and nerve-inducing it is to plan and cope with new environments with a disability. Yet, I’ve had people tell me “he shouldn’t be doing that,” with a tut; scowling, glaring at us and sometimes asking if I’ve just bought the kit so I can bring my dog in for free. All of these people were completely missing how he was doing his job… perfectly.
I’ve been challenged in women’s toilets by very self-righteous ladies who think I’m male… (I often suggest they have their eyesight checked;) been told that if I turn up ten minutes late for a college class, I will be shut out along with the people who are late because they are hungover, you know, because otherwise they are being preferential to me; and turn up at the dentists only to realise they only have steps and the dentist works upstairs and won’t come downstairs for just me.
People, institutions and their processes and protocols remind me, and everyone else, that we’re not really worth anything unless we fit in.
My shield: (Fans of Aeron’s series may notice there’s a theme…)
Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, spirit…
Truth – thought block – a really handy tool from sports which I’ll describe below but think sticking up a mental shield and instructing yourself what you want to think instead.
The Right – I have the right to be me, to be loved for being me, and to love others being me.
Peace – Thanks – I’m thankful that I understand people are worth more than any amount of money. That freedom is something so many take for granted but I have to earn it everyday so that makes me value it so much more.
Faith – Think Positive – I hope to change this kind of behaviour one day. I want there to be no “reasonable adjustments” but real change for the better. I am going to make that happen by the things in my power (however small or big.) That’s being open about myself, and fuelling every piece of work I have with that message: never give up; believe all things are possible; love never fails.
Salvation – the blessings I’ve been given – Every gift, every skill, every hard fought piece of knowledge I’ve battled for. I CAN.
Spirit – Think about others – Faith has taught me a lot. One of those things is using my experience to help someone else. Lift people, love people and you liberate people… from the inside.
The Internal stuff
Whether it is caused by those external shots, internal scars or even physical problems, everyone suffers from internal conflict. (Hence why we like to read about it so much!) From everything to battling unwanted thoughts to feeling just plain rough when you look in the mirror. Illness, in particular, is really scary. So I looked at sports stars, and people who had to find the energy to keep going, the control to perform and the calmness that helped them win and came up with useful tools that did a whole lot more than Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Relaxation – For me this is mediation and prayer. It helps me to spend time with the best coach. I feel re-energised by it. There’s some cool practical on the spot techniques that I’ll show you below too. Everyone is different, we might have similar experiences or responses but finding what works can sometimes mean mixing things.
Positive visualisation – It’s used in arts to sports and helps you picture yourself where you’re aiming to be.
Baby steps – Simple, straightforward and bit by bit. I can get overwhelmed and scared. When I’ve had to walk to the operating theatre (be wheeled too) or let medical staff (the good ones!) run tests that no one in their right mind would go through. I focus on that simple process. Doesn’t make you less sweaty but it does help you do it without hyperventilating.
Smiling – I swear this is the simplest, most effective way to kick fear, doubt and all its mean little friends on their butt. Physically, it’s supposed to do a lot of chemical things that help hormones release etc but spiritually, I think smiling reconnects us to our core… love.
Have fun – I don’t really care that I’m in public howling with laughter because I just wheeled into the wall (it happens) or giggling because mistimed my pushes and done an unintentional U-Turn, or cheering Ferb because he’s has just flattened me and I’m in the middle of a public place, lying on the floor with a golden retriever guarding me. (that’s a conversation starter, right there.) Life can be fun, make it fun. Imagine how cool it would be to get on a bus or train and everyone launched into a musical number? Or if you skipped down the street instead of jogging? Or if you pulled a football goal celebration because you had just found an extra chocolate bar in your fridge?
This body is my story. I am one of a kind. I’m a work of art – I hear people talking about their weight so much and about everything they think is wrong with them. I don’t hear anyone say something good about themselves often. We’re almost not allowed in case someone else feels we’re big headed. Well, yeah, I’ve got bits that probably won’t see me on a catwalk BUT… I’ve love my body because it’s mine and I’m proud of it. My body, in spite of all its been through, is going through and I put it through, loves me. It is an incredible piece of kit that performs incredible feats every day. If you think about how your gravity pulls your blood to your feet when you stand up which would be a big issue but your calves contract to offset that, your blood pressure and heart rate adjusts so the blood overcomes gravity and soars around your body like a postie on a mission. Maybe it whistles too? I’d like to think so. How cool is that?
Inspiration is everywhere – Take in the good stuff around you and you start to feel the positive energy. I’m always looking for new people and things to learn about, to learn from and to help inspire me. One of my favourites at the moment is down to my mentee who has been teaching me all about US Women’s Soccer. One of her favourite players, Ashlyn Harris, recently said this.
“If I can help people in a way that being different is beautiful then I just think I wanna play that role for them because I tell them every single day that I’m different, I love being different, I thrive being different, and it’s okay.”
Yes, it is. It’s the message I plough into every novel, from Aeron’s series, to Pippa’s, to Mabel, to If The Shoe Fits and In Fashion through my message #EmbraceDesigner. Be you. Be happy you’re you. Believe you can.
Progressive Relaxation (Edmund Jacobson) – The I’ve had a stressful day, to I need to relax before I face the day.
Each phase should take 5 to 7 seconds and for each muscle group perform each exercise twice.
- Find a quiet place, dim the lights, lie in comfortable position (legs uncrossed.) Loosen your clothing. Take a deep breath, exhale slowly… and relax.
- Raise your arms, extend them in front of you, make a tight fist with both hands. Notice the tension and hold it for 5 seconds, then let go halfway, hold it for another 5 seconds, and let go. Notice the difference between tense and relaxed. Then focus on relaxing your hands for 10 to 15 seconds (and I add in visualising water washing the tension away…)
- Tense your upper arms for 5 seconds, then let out half way for 5 seconds, then release. Feel the difference and focus on the tension being washed away for 10 to 15 seconds.
- Curl your toes up for 5 seconds, release halfway for 5 seconds, then relax your feet and focus on washing the tension away.
- Point your toes like you’re doing ballet and tense up your feet and calves for 5 seconds, let go to halfway for 5 seconds… and wash it away.
- Pump your calves, point your toes away to pulling up toward your nose 5 times then circle them around for 5 times, then lower them and focus on washing it away.
- Extend your legs, 6 inches off the bed/floor, tense your thigh muscles for 5 seconds, release halfway for 5 seconds, and wash it away… for 10 to 15 seconds.
- Chest and shoulders.
- Push your back to the floor/bed
- Scrunch up your face.
- Take a big breath, hold it for 5 seconds, exhale and tell yourself “calm/relax” repeat that at least 5 times and smile. It feels good.
Breath Control – When you need the quicker fix or you’re on the go.
- take a deep complete breath, fill your lungs and focus on there being energy in your diaphragm. (say for 5 seconds depending on your ability)
- Hold it for 5 – 10 seconds.
- Exhale focusing on controlling your breath like you are trying to keep a piece of paper afloat (for 10 seconds) either way at a ratio of 1:2.
Thought Stopping – to cut out the negative impact of thoughts.
Athletes use this all the time and it’s accepted that we talk to ourselves (unlike in society where it’s seen as slightly odd.) Self-talk can be positive /motivational, instructional or negative.
Positive : pumping yourself up (more, come on, etc) Confidence (I can!) Instruction (think about your feet) anxiety control (calm, relax.)
Negative: Worry (I’m wrong, I’m fat etc) Disengagement (I can’t do this, I’ll never write a book) Somatic fatigue (I’m so tired)
Neutral: irrelevant thoughts (ooh cake)
Self-talk tips from Mikes: a) keep your phrases short b) use first person and present tense C) construct positive phrases d) say those phrases with meaning and attention e) speak kindly to yourself and f) repeat phrases often.
So when you get a negative thought like “I feel fat.” Focus on it like you’re catching it in a trap. Use a trigger like saying “stop” (or similar word) and click your fingers, slap your thigh, whatever you find most effective. Then give yourself a motivational and/or an instruction. “I look good.” Followed by “Do some calf raises” (or something physical or task-related that gives you something physical to do.)
Thought: “I’ll never write a book” Visual response:—Catch it in the trap—Verbal instruction: “Stop”— Physical Instruction: tap your finger to your desk. Motivational: I can do this. Instructional: Just take one chapter at a time.
You retrain your brain to and stop that thought taking over. Give it a shot!